[Marxism] Movement to Protest Israel's Policies Triggers Bitter Fights Over U.S. Scholars' Speech

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 4 08:23:17 MDT 2012


May 4, 2012
Movement to Protest Israel's Policies Triggers Bitter Fights Over 
U.S. Scholars' Speech

By Peter Schmidt

The movement to economically isolate Israel to protest its 
treatment of Palestinians has led to heavy trading in 
recriminations among American scholars and sparked debate over the 
limits of free speech and academic freedom.

Among recent developments, four public universities in California 
are resisting demands from a pro-Israel advocacy group, the Amcha 
Initiative, that they block academics from using publicly financed 
university resources to promote what is commonly known as the 
"Boycott, Divest, Sanction" (or BDS) movement to pressure Israel.

Meanwhile, more than 140 professors at American colleges have 
signed on to a letter to The New York Times formally objecting to 
the newspaper's publication last month of a conservative group's 
advertisement that attacked several scholars involved with the 
boycott movement. The ad, published on April 24, said the scholars 
"should be publicly shamed and condemned for the crimes their 
hatred incites."

The controversy over speech associated with the boycott movement 
comes at a time when the nation's Jewish organizations are 
themselves struggling to find a balance between embracing open 
debate over Israel and seeking to stifle criticism of that nation 
that they see as crossing the line into anti-Semitism.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization 
representing more than 130 local, regional, and national Jewish 
groups, is expected at its annual assembly on Sunday to approve a 
resolution stating that federal complaints of anti-Semitic 
discrimination on campuses are a valuable tool but could trigger a 
backlash if filed too hastily with the Education Department's 
Office for Civil Rights. Jewish activists who have formally 
accused colleges of violating federal law by tolerating 
anti-Semitism argue that such complaints are justified. The 
incidents the complaints cite, the activists say, reflect just a 
portion of the anti-Semitism they associate with critics of Israel 
on college campuses.
Links to Controversy

The Amcha Initiative has accused professors at both California 
State University at Northridge and the University of California at 
Los Angeles of promoting the boycott-Israel movement on Web sites 
hosted by the universities. The group has asked both of those 
institutions to take steps to keep university resources from being 
used in such a manner. The group also recently sought, without 
success, to persuade the presidents of three Cal State 
institutions—the campuses at Fresno and Northridge, and California 
Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo—to revoke their 
universities' sponsorship of talks by Ilan Pappé, a historian who 
is director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the 
University of Exeter. Mr. Pappé is a harsh critic of Israel who 
has been accused of anti-Semitism, despite being Jewish.

Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the Cal State system, has backed 
the campus presidents in their decisions to defend their 
institutions' sponsorship of Mr. Pappé's talks on free-speech 
grounds. He has also stood behind the decision by Harold 
Hellenbrand, interim president of the Northridge campus, to let 
David Klein, a professor of mathematics, continue to post a link 
on his university Web site to a separate site with resources for 
people involved in the movement to boycott Israel.

Last month, Mr. Hellenbrand, who is also the campus's provost and 
vice president for academic affairs, sent faculty members and 
administrators a letter accusing the Amcha Initiative of 
attempting to squelch criticism of Israel. His letter said the 
group's characterization of Mr. Klein's Web page as anti-Semitic 
"reflects a partisan and sectarian view." Giving in to the group's 
demands, he said, would threaten not only the First Amendment's 
guarantee of free speech but also its guarantee of separation of 
church and state, by letting a sectarian group determine what 
speech is acceptable.

"To enforce this view on political academic speech is to truncate 
the only enduring corrective to error and abuse, discourse 
itself," Mr. Hellenbrand's letter said. "It is to suborn speech 
and thought to the very thing George Washington warned against, 
entangling alliance with a foreign power."

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at 
the University of California at Santa Cruz who is a co-founder of 
the Amcha Initiative, called Mr. Hellenbrand's letter 
inappropriate, insensitive, and defamatory, arguing this week that 
"he goes to great lengths to delegitimize us in ways that 
effectively demonize us." The Global Frontier Justice Center, an 
advocacy group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has asked California's 
attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, to step in and stop Mr. Klein 
from posting any links to the boycott movement on his Web site. 
Ms. Harris has not responded.
Disagreement in UCLA Case

It is unclear where UCLA stands in regard to the Amcha 
Initiative's complaint about David Delgado Shorter, an associate 
professor of world arts and cultures. Mr. Shorter posted a link to 
a boycott-Israel petition, which he had signed, on a Web site for 
students in a course on "Tribal Worldviews," which he taught last 

Last month, Andrew F. Leuchter, chairman of the university's 
Academic Senate, sent Ms. Rossman-Benjamin an e-mail in which he 
said the head of Mr. Shorter's department, Angelia Leung, had told 
Mr. Shorter that posting such materials was inappropriate. 
"Professor Shorter's chair assures me that he understands his 
serious error in judgment and has said that he will not make this 
mistake again," said the e-mail from Dr. Leuchter, a professor of 
psychiatry and behavior sciences.

Mr. Shorter, however, has denied saying he made a mistake and 
agreeing not to post such links. At his request, the UCLA Academic 
Senate's committee on academic freedom has stepped in to 
investigate how administrators there have handled his case. Ms. 
Leung did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment. Mr. 
Leuchter said in an e-mail this week that he considers the matter 
closed. "This matter was resolved informally, but effectively and 
appropriately, with Professor Shorter's department chair simply 
speaking to him about it," he wrote.
Recriminations Over an Ad

The New York Times advertisement that has stirred controversy was 
purchased by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an organization 
founded by the conservative writer for which it is named. The ad 
cited the recent murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children in 
Toulouse, France, and said it may have been inspired by an 
"atmosphere of hate" fueled by the boycott-Israel movement. 
Specifically naming 14 American college professors who have been 
supportive of the boycott-Israel movement, the ad says, "If BDS 
activists refuse to moderate their rhetoric and end their 
scapegoating of Jewish businesses, they should be held accountable 
for the consequences of their hate."

In their letter to the newspaper, sent last month, the more than 
140 professors protesting the advertisement said the ad "grossly 
distorts the statements" made by the professors and represents an 
attempt by the Horowitz center "to shut down informed debate."

"Even those of us who do not support BDS are alarmed at your 
carrying an advertisement that misinforms and names individuals 
who do not have the money that Horowitz has to defend themselves 
through this chosen medium," the letter said.

The newspaper has responded to the letter, which it did not 
publish, by saying it does not base its decisions on whether to 
publish advertisements on the opinions they express.

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